The world in which the New Testament was written was ruled by Rome, and the Roman State was not elected by popular vote every couple of years. Christians weren’t determining who was in political power and the Church wasn’t involved in making policy decisions for the Empire. Unless a government official converted to Christ, in the days of the New Testament, Christians were largely on the outside of the government looking in. Recognizing this fact, R. Scott Clark, the Church Historian at Westminster Seminary California, asks –
Where did the apostles commission the visible, institutional church to lobby any government for or about anything?
Where in the New Testament did any of the apostles institute a lobbying arm in Rome or in any regional governmental center (e.g., Ephesus)?
Where in the New Testament does one find a single unequivocal (or even good and necessary inference) of the visible, institutional church speaking to any one of the social ills that plagued the Greco-Roman world?
In the first century a Christian’s relationship with the State consisted of the New Testament’s three-fold instruction to “pray, pay and obey.” Recognizing that the State existed by Divine design (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; John 18:33-38 19:8-11; Acts 25:10-11; Romans 13:1-7) the writers of the New Testament told Christians to pray for those who were in authority over them (I Timothy 2:1-4), to pay their taxes (Matthew 17:24-27), and insofar as it did not violate their obedience to Christ (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29) to submit to the government’s authority (I Peter 2:13-17). The Book of Revelation is an important New Testament exploration of what happens when the State becomes demonic. It has much to say about Christian resistance to the principalities and powers when they have gone astray and it holds out the foundational promise that God in Christ will finally right all wrongs and fully establish His Kingdom. But you would be hard pressed to find anything in the New Testament about how Christians are supposed to vote because voting wasn’t even an option for Christians when the New Testament was being written. Politics as we understand the term and experience the reality today was simply not part of the frame of reference for those first Christians. But this is not to say that early Christianity was not political at all.
The values and beliefs of the first Christians had profound social, economic and political implications. The astonishing claim of the Gospel is that God the Son reveals and redeems. Jesus Christ by His life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again both reconciles us to God and makes God known. As an expression of this truth, more than once, the New Testament announces that we have “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5; Romans 12:12; Colossians 3:1-4; John 1:18). In other words, as Christians we actually know something about who God is and what it is that God wants for us and for the whole world. Life, both abundant and eternal, is God’s plan for us.
In Creation, God put our well-being as human beings, in a web of interconnected relationships with everything and everyone else – “Shalom” – at the very center of His purpose. In Redemption God did the heavy lifting in Jesus Christ to repair the damage that the rebellion of sin had done to that Divine intention. And the promise of the Consummation says that the day is coming when God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is right now in heaven. The Kingdom will come. God’s Shalom will be restored – God’s will done on earth as it is right now in heaven.
The critical question for us to consider in all of this is how will we operate as Christians between this redemption that was inaugurated with the Incarnation and that redemption that will finally and fully accomplished with the Consummation? Knowing, as we do, something of God’s intentions for all of creation, how then shall we live? I really like the way that John Killinger, for so many years the professor of preaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School, put it in his book Bread for the Wilderness; Wine for the Journey (Word). He said that as a Christian –
You find yourself wanting to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want hungry people to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear. You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things.
Alan Kreider in his truly insightful work on “Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom” described how Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century described the church of his day as an “enclosed garden” (Solomon 4:12) in which Christian virtues and graces were being cultivated. Thus formed by this “Jesus-shaped distinctiveness,” those Christians then functioned in the world where they lived and worked “as instruments that God was using to construct a new world.” People learned about that new world not because those Christians were angry combatants in a culture war who went about scolding and condemning those whose beliefs and behaviors ran contrary to their own, but rather because those Christians quietly embodied the Gospel values of compassion and sacrifice in their everyday lives, and the people who saw them do this wanted to know why they were like that?
Bill Baird, one of my New Testament professors in seminary, used to criticize the way that he said he often heard his students use Biblical texts as “springboards to Washington D.C.” as if they were detailed public policy prescriptions intended for immediate political implementation. Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, in his really insightful book on how church and culture will need to relate in this “post-Christendom” era, fleshed out what I suspect drove Dr. Baird’s complaint –
What could be more irrelevant than Christian leaders who beg the government to pass laws to … to tax the capitalists in their own flocks and redistribute the money to the poor… when those Christian leaders cannot convince their own flocks to do this things on the basis of the Bible? …No wonder politicians often have so little respect for religious lobbyists.
When the New Testament speaks – especially in the Epistles – it speaks to the believing community, to people who have already surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. The social ethics of the New Testament are the ethics of the church, the ethics of people who are personally committed to the person of Christ and who are being actively shaped by the values of Christ. And this means that the world is not going to be changed by the church making public pronouncements and issuing resolutions. The world is going to be changed by Christians who are being transformed by the renewal of their minds so that they know the will of God (Romans 12:1) and who are then keeping faith with what they know to be good, and right, and true in their everyday lives and relationships.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called this “the principle of cellular infiltration.”
Just a little salt can affect the great mass. Because of its essential quality it permeates everything… One truly saintly person radiates influence; that person will permeate any group in which he or she happens to be… Though the church makes her great pronouncements on the great social questions of the day, the average unchurched outsider is completely unaffected. But if the person working beside that unchurched outsider is a true Christian whose life has been saved by Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit, then everyone around will be directly affected.
From this perspective, the critical assignment given to the church is the cultivation of the Christian conscience – teaching disciples to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20). At the church I serve we talk about this as our congregational value of having an “Open Bible” – “Exploring Scripture to be formed, informed and transformed.” Just like light in the darkness, salt in the soup and leaven in the loaf, Christians who are being actively formed by the mind of Christ penetrate the social, economic and political systems in which they live so that those social, economic and political systems will begin to better reflect what they know as Christians to be God’s final intention in Christ for justice, righteousness and peace for all of creation. And in our political system this means voting.
Recently a group of Northway members were in Honduras on a mission trip. This is the 22nd time in the last 18 years that a mission team has travelled from Northway to Central America to work side by side with the people there in a model villages program. We do this because we have the mind of Christ, and there are few texts in the Scriptures that have had a greater impact on our consciousness and conscience as Christians than has Matthew 25 where Jesus said –
And the righteous will say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
Reflecting on these Gospel verses led Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930), one of the most important German theologians and church historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to conclude that they “have shone so brilliantly for so many generations in Christ’s church and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may describe all Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity.” His development of this idea bears repeating –
Among the extant words and parables of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous, and with them we must rank many a story of his life. Yet, apart altogether from the number of such sayings, it is plain that whenever he had in view the relations of mankind, the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities. …[And] while Jesus himself was exhibiting this kind of love, and making it a life and a power, his disciples were learning the highest and holiest thing that can be learned in all religion, namely, to believe in the love of God. To them the Being who had made heaven and earth was “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” … But this was more than just words, it was a thing of power and action. The Christians really considered themselves [to be] brothers and sisters, and their actions corresponded to this belief. … The gospel thus became a social message. The preaching which laid hold of the outer man, detaching him from the world, and uniting him to his God, was also a preaching of solidarity and brotherliness. …[And] thus had this saying became a fact: “Hereby shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
This is what compelled the Northway members to go to Honduras, and now that they are back home, this is what will inform what they do next. You see, in just a matter of weeks now there will be a Presidential primary in Texas, and all of those people from Northway who went to Honduras because of the mind of Christ will be asked to make a political choice between candidates who are talking an awful lot about refugees and immigration, and the mind of Christ will inform the choice that they will make then as well. Those Northway members are going to connect the dots between their faith commitments and values, their relationships with the very people who so often find it necessary to flee the violence and poverty of their homeland to find safety and opportunity in another, and what the politicians are saying.
This is how Christian service that the New Testament explicitly commands of Christians and the church becomes a movement of justice in society at large. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action described this dynamic memorably in his “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”
A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act. They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead.
Those Northway members went to Honduras to be “ambulance drivers.” They did this because they are Christians whose Lord and Savior told us that His disciples are people who welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry as an expression of their obedience and devotion to Him (Matthew 25:13-18). And ambulance drivers who bind up the wounds of humanity from the wreckage of life look for the tunnel builders who are committed to refashioning the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. Ambulance drivers partnering with tunnel builders, that’s how a vote becomes Christian. DBS+